Governor Gray Davis on Governor Jerry Brown

Editor’s note: Gray Davis, the 37th Governor of the State of California, served as chief of staff to Jerry Brown during his first two terms as governor (1975-1981). We asked Gov. Davis to write a foreword to our lengthy oral history with Brown, which we are pleased to share with you below. Click here to see Davis’s essay in the context of Brown’s oral history.


Governor Edmund G. (“Jerry”) Brown was the longest serving governor in California history, and one of the most consequential. First elected in 1974, he championed a major solar initiative (first-ever tax incentive for rooftop solar), and signed legislation prohibiting any new nuclear power plants in California until the federal government certified a safe way to dispose of nuclear waste. To this day, the Federal Government has yet to do so and no further nuclear plants have been approved.

Governor Brown also negotiated and signed the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, a first of its kind in California and the Nation. Even today, it remains the only law that creates and protects the rights of farmworkers to unionize and collectively bargain. None of the other 49 states has been able to pass similar protections for some of the most vulnerable workers in our country.

In March of 1976, Jerry announced his run for the presidency and won primaries in California, Maryland and Nevada, and accumulated the second highest number of votes going into the convention (2,449,374). His late entry into the 1976 democratic presidential primary precluded him from catching Jimmy Carter, who accumulated the requisite amount of delegates to secure the nomination and become president.

Gray Davis (left) and Jerry Brown (right)
Gray Davis and Jerry Brown

Jerry Brown left office in 1983 and did not return to the governorship until 2011, 28 years later, making him California’s youngest, oldest and longest-serving governor. His third and fourth terms featured a remarkable turnaround in the state’s financial standing. He inherited a $27 billion deficit but left office with a $29 billion surplus ($14.5 budget surplus and a $14.5 billion “rainy-day fund”).

In an effort to restore the State’s fiscal stability, Jerry sponsored and campaigned for the passage of Proposition 30, a voter-approved tax increase that raised $6 billion. Tying his fiscal and environmental stewardship together, in 2012 Jerry signed into law the first in the nation government run cap-and-trade program, creating in excess of $9.3 billion to fund emission reductions and programs that protect the environment and promote public health.

He left the Governor’s office and public life in early 2019, enjoying a higher approval rating than any governor since Ronald Reagan.

To understand Jerry’s expansive worldview and insatiable curiosity, it is helpful to take stock of where he has been and what he has done. The son of a Governor, he lived in the Historic Governor’s Mansion, attended parochial high school, studied at Santa Clara University, joined the Sacred Heart Jesuit Novitiate seminary, received his Bachelor’s Degree from UC Berkeley and his law degree from Yale. In addition, Jerry has practiced private law at Tuttle and Taylor, was elected to the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees, California Secretary of State, California Attorney General and four times as Governor of California. He has run the State Democratic Party, served as Mayor of Oakland and ran three times for president. He’s traveled the world, studied Buddhism, and worked with Mother Teresa at her Home for the Dying in India.

When I was running for governor, people asked me what does it take to be a successful governor? My answer (in jest) was “rain in the north and a strong economy.” Obviously, the governor cannot affect the weather. As for the economy, state tax incentives can only affect the economy on the margins. In the main, economic expansions and recessions are a result of the business cycle and function largely outside the Governor’s control.

But that is not how the public sees it. They give great credit to a governor when the economy is improving, but hold him fully accountable when the economy is in recession. Every governor from Ronald Reagan has experienced a slowdown or recession of some type. Reagan, Jerry Brown in his first two terms, Deukmejian, Wilson, myself and Schwarzenegger have experienced the ups and downs of the economy.

But when Jerry Brown was inaugurated for the third time in 2011, the economy turned positive and remained positive for his entire eight years.

That was a great relief to the public whom had experienced an unemployment rate of 10%, the loss of thousands of homes to foreclosures and financial downgrades, as conditions deteriorated in California.

This economic rebound was a critical factor in rescuing California from nearly a decade of deficits; however, it took more than good luck to turn California around. Jerry Brown brought the fiscal discipline necessary to turn the corner. He had reached out to almost every legislator as soon as he was elected for the third time, explaining that the path of more borrowing and larger deficits was not sustainable.

Despite hundreds of hours of collaboration with the legislature, their initial budget was a disappointment to him and was clearly not in balance. After much deliberation he decided to do something that has never happened in California: he didn’t just veto parts of the budget as most governors in the past had done, he vetoed the entire budget!

Sacramento was in shock!

After a number of heated meetings, he and the legislature produced a second budget with numerous reductions that was in balance, and put California back on the path back to solvency. As a result of that budget and previous cuts, some 30,000 teachers had been laid off, many classes had been canceled as well as almost all after school programs in California. In his 2012 budget, the governor and legislature restored some, but not all, of the cuts made during the previous three years.

That same year, the Governor gambled that he could persuade voters to pass Prop 30, which generated $6 billion additional dollars that paid for these new teachers and professors and restored many of the classes that had been eliminated in previous years. In fact, the voters believed Jerry Brown when he said California could not cut anymore. They believed him when he said that most of the taxes would fall on the wealthy and that Prop 30 would put California back on the path to greatness.

The voters passed Prop 30 and gave California a fresh start.

A governor without Governor Brown’s discipline and well-known frugality might not have convinced California voters to increase taxes by $6 billion. Without Jerry Brown’s leadership, cooperation of the legislature and the strong economy he inherited, California might still be waist deep in deficits rather than the 5th largest economy in the world. Jerry Brown exited the stage in January 2019. By the time he left, California had new problems, including homelessness and poverty; but he and the legislature solved the problems they inherited by righting California’s finances and helping rebuild its economy.

Frugality and Good Fortune:

Before Governor Brown was inaugurated in 1975, he told me he did not want to be driven in a limousine, but preferred instead a car normally assigned to a legislator or cabinet officer. When I conveyed that message to the director of general services, he told me they had 1974 Plymouths available in three colors: gold, white and blue. I opted for blue, envisioning dark blue or royal blue.

After the Governor delivered a 7-minute inaugural address, we started walking across Capitol Park for our trip to San Francisco. There was only one car waiting for us – and it was not the dark blue Plymouth I anticipated but a powder blue Plymouth! No California governor has ever been a driven around in a powder blue Plymouth. I was beyond embarrassed!

“Is that my car?” Governor Brown asked. “I’m afraid it is,” I replied.

But to the Governor’s great good fortune, the public warmed up to the idea of a powder blue Plymouth; they began to take pride that their Governor had chosen a less expensive and less imposing looking car as his official vehicle. By the end of Jerry’s second term, the blue Plymouth became almost as recognizable as the Governor.

Another example of the governor’s frugality occurred about three months into his administration. We were just finishing our morning meeting, when I mentioned to the governor that I had asked General Services to come over and not replace, but repair a 10-inch hole in the rug adjacent to his desk. “Why would you do that?” he asked. “Because it’s unseemly to have a hole in the governor’s rug.” The Governor answered: “That hole will save the state at least $500 million, because legislators cannot come down and pound on my desk demanding lots of money for their pet programs while looking at a hole in my rug!”

That told me not only was the governor genuinely frugal, but that he also understood the power of his frugality to fight off excessive demands in the budget. It gave him the moral authority to ask for big cuts when the state was $27 billion in debt at the start of his third term, and the courage to veto the entire budget when they did not make those cuts.

Jerry Brown was the best and possibly the only leader who could overcome the challenges that California faced in 2011 and lead the state back to the 5th largest economy in the world.

When he walked out of his office for the last time in January 2019, only the United States, China, Japan and Germany had larger economies than California.

By Governor Gray Davis (Ret.), 37th Governor of California

Michele Perrault: Sierra Club President 1984-1986 and 1993-1994, Environmental Educator, and Nature Protector

Michele Perrault – new Sierra Club oral history release

Michele Perrault, national president of the Sierra Club board of directors in 1984

Michele Perrault twice served as national president of the Sierra Club, from 1984-1986 and from 1993-1994. She became the first female president of the Sierra Club in the modern era, since it became a nation-wide and then international organization with a multi-million-dollar operating budget. Environmental education, protecting nature, and extensive networking emerged as key themes in Perrault’s life as an environmental activist and leader. Perrault’s oral history is the first interview in the renewed Sierra Club Oral History Project—a long-standing collaboration between the Sierra Club and the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley that has, over the prior half century, preserved the Sierra Club’s past through oral history interviews.

Right Now! newsletter of the Sierra Club Atlantic chapter’s Conservation Education Committee, edited by Michele Perrault (January 1971)

Perrault was born in the Bronx, New York on May 8, 1941. She attended the High School of Music & Art in New York City, depicted later in the television series Fame. After a stint as one of the first women to attend the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Perrault received her B.A. from Hunter College. Perrault’s Sierra Club activism began in the late 1960s when she was recruited to the Club’s Atlantic chapter by pioneering environmental lawyer, David Sive, whose children Perrault taught in her science classroom. Perrault quickly became chair of the chapter’s education committee and initiated a newsletter to communicate environmental information and share opportunities for activism, a practice she would replicate years later as International Vice President of the Sierra Club. Copies of Right Now, Perrault’s environmental education newsletter for the Club’s Atlantic Chapter, as well as a copy of her later International Activist, the online newsletter of the national Sierra Club’s International Committee, appear in an appendix to her oral history.

Phillip Berry and Michele Perrault at Sierra Club board of directors meeting (1982)

Perrault volunteered with the Sierra Club for many decades at every level, including as chair of various local, regional, and national committees. With her acute intelligence, deep curiosity, and exuberant energy, she honed expertise in a wide variety of issues: from off-shore drilling to solid waste treatment; from corporate fundraising to political lobbying; from the endangered tigers of India to the protection of wild places in Antarctica. In the 1970s, Perrault lead campaigns in Massachusetts against off-shore drilling and its on-shore effects, at one point garnering publicity for hanging dead fish from the window of the campaign’s headquarters. Perrault met fellow Sierra Club leader Phillip Berry at a national Sierra Club council meeting and, in 1978, moved to California where they were married. Beginning in 1981, Perrault won multiple elections to the Club’s national board of directors on which she served through 2001, including her two terms as Sierra Club president. Perrault also served as a board member of Earth Team, Green Seal, and Greenbelt Alliance. Her lifetime of environmental activism includes three U.S. Citizen Advisory Commissions under three different U.S. presidents, as well as appointment by the U.S. Department of State as a delegate to several Arctic Treaty Consultative Meetings in locations around the world.

The Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

Perrault’s oral history is the newest addition to the Sierra Club Oral History Project, an enduring partnership between the Sierra Club and the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library. Initiated in 1970, amid an upsurge of environmental activism that produced the first Earth Day and codified a suite of new legal statutes, the Sierra Club Oral History Project now includes accounts from over one hundred volunteer leaders and staff members active in the Club for more than a century. Varying from only one hour to over thirty hours in length, these interviews highlight the breadth, depth, and significance of eclectic environmental efforts in both the national Sierra Club and the Club’s grassroots at regional and chapter levels—from education to litigation to legislative lobbying; from wilderness preservation to energy policy to environmental justice; from outdoor adventures to climate change activism to controlling chemicals; from California to the Carolinas to Alaska and beyond to international realms.

Together with the sizable archive of Sierra Club papers and photographs also in The Bancroft Library, the Sierra Club Oral History Project offers an extraordinary lens on the evolution of environmental issues and activism over the past century, as well as the motivations, conflicts, and triumphs of individuals who helped direct that evolution. The full-text transcripts of all interviews in the Sierra Club Oral History Project, including this interview with Michele Perrault, can be found online via the Oral History Center website.

Sierra Club mission statement

The Oral History Center extends great thanks to all narrators who, since the early 1970s, shared their precious memories in the Sierra Club Oral History Project. We also thank the Sierra Club board of directors for recognizing early on the long-term importance of preserving the Club’s history and its evolution; to the past members of the Sierra Club’s History Committee, especially its founding chair Marshall Kuhn; to special donors who provided funding for individual Sierra Club oral history interviews; and to the trustees of the Sierra Club Foundation for providing the necessary funding to initiate, expand, and more recently renew this oral history project. Much appreciation goes to staff members of the Sierra Club and the Sierra Club Foundation who helped make these oral histories possible, most recently and notably to Therese Dunn, librarian of the William E. Colby Memorial Library at the Sierra Club’s headquarters in Oakland. Special thanks, too, to all prior oral history interviewers, most importantly to Ann Lage for her more than three decades of exceptional work on this project.

I am grateful and excited to conduct new oral histories with leaders of the Sierra Club, one of the most significant environmental organizations in history. And I deeply appreciate the narrators, like Michele Perrault, who welcome me into their homes, who set aside significant time to conduct these oral histories, and who, in the process, share their meaningful memories of protecting the planet for all of us to explore and enjoy.

Roger Eardley-Pryor, Ph.D.

Historian and Interviewer, Sierra Club Oral History Project

Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library

Michele Perrault – new Sierra Club oral history release

OHC Director’s Column – January 2020

From the OHC Director:

The staff of the Oral History Center wishes everyone a happy and productive 2020!

After a long winter’s rest for the Berkeley band of oral historians, this year has jumped off to a running — and even wild —  start. 

For one, we have begun the unveiling of our lengthy life history interview with four-term California Governor Jerry Brown. Done in partnership with KQED Public Media, this oral history also serves as the first interview conducted for the relaunched California State Government Oral History Project, a project of the Secretary of State. Read more about the interview background and context — or the interview itself. Here’s the page that serves as clearing house for all information about and coverage of this important oral history

We are in the final phases of preparing a number of new interviews for release in the coming weeks and months, including new releases for our projects with: the Sierra Club, the East Bay Regional Park District, the Presidio Trust, San Francisco Opera, the founders of Chicano/a Studies, and the Getty Trust African American Artist project. 

Along with our usual oral history work, we are preparing for our annual Introductory Workshop (Leap Day! February 29th) and Advanced Summer Institute (August 10–14). Applications for the Introductory Workshop and Advanced Institute are both now open. 

Come back in February for a more substantive column from your’s truly. Until then, back to that reservoir of unread emails!

Martin Meeker, Oral History Center Director

UC Berkeley Oral History Center: Jerry Brown Oral History

“Jerry Brown, I found, to be a man with a largely unwavering set of core values and principles who sometimes appears to choose contradictory ways in which to express those drives.”
— Director Martin Meeker, Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library, reflecting on his experience interviewing Jerry Brown

Inside the Jerry Brown Oral History

Jerry Brown first gubernatorial portrait
First official gubernatorial portrait of Jerry Brown by portrait artist Don Bachardy, 1984

There are very few individuals who are what might be called a “shoe-in” for an Oral History Center life history interview. Governor Jerry Brown is one who easily qualifies. Brown’s career as an elected official began in Southern California in 1969 when he was elected to the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees and then continued for nearly the next fifty years through a succession of high offices; in 2018 he concluded his record fourth term as governor.

In forty hours of interviews, there are at least three main areas of study of the life of Jerry Brown, and politics much more broadly, that might be impacted by the contents of this interview from today’s vantage point: the historical trajectory of key social and political issues; the influence of creative and unique ideas upon Brown and his agenda; and what might be called the philosophy of realpolitik — of how politics really works, at least according to Brown.

The Jerry Brown oral history was made possible by funding from the State Government Oral History Program, A Project of the California Secretary of State, State Archives.

Dive Deeper

Dive deeper into the political life of Jerry Brown through the Jerry Brown oral history.

“20 Shades of Jerry Brown” UC Berkeley Podcast
“We had 20 interview sessions, and I would say that in those 20 interview sessions, we had 20 different shades of Jerry Brown,” explains Oral History Center Director Martin Meeker in UC Berkeley’s 9-minute Fiat Vox podcast, “Berkeley oral history project reveals 20 shades of Jerry Brown.” Get a taste of the oral history — hear Brown talk about the medfly invasion, Linda Ronstadt, and politics past and present. Martin Meeker provides insights into this “extraordinarily detailed, thoughtful, self-critical, broad, and sweeping oral history.”

Jerry Brown Interview History
For the historians at UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, the question was not, “Should this interview be done?” but rather, “How might it be done at all?” Get the inside story about the making of this riveting 40-hour oral history from interviewer and Oral History Center Director Martin Meeker.

California State Government Oral History Program
The Jerry Brown oral history is a part of the State Government Oral History Program and is the cornerstone of the re-launch of the program under California Secretary of State Alex Padilla. All of the oral history materials (recordings and transcripts) will be deposited with the California State Archives and available to users through their website as well.

Jerry Brown Oral History Transcript

Todd Holmes, Jerry Brown, Martin Meeker
(L to R) Oral History Center Interviewer Todd Holmes, Governor Jerry Brown, and Oral History Center Director Martin Meeker in January 2020

Read the transcript of the 40-hour oral history. In this oral history, the following topics are discussed at length: family background and upbringing; education, religion, and friendships; the political career of Pat Brown; college, seminary, and law school; California statewide elected offices, including Governor of California; campaigns for elected office, including for US President; election reform; taxation, budgets, and deficits; law, the courts, and criminal justice reform; immigration; the environment and climate change; education reform, charter schools, and higher education; Oakland, CA; popular culture, journalism, and political campaigns; political philosophy, theories of governance, and applied politics.

KQED Forum Podcast Featuring OHC Director Martin Meeker
Politics was the family business. The Democratic party was tribal for Brown. Listen as Oral History Center Director Martin Meeker, and KQED interview partners Scott Shafer and Guy Marzorati, talk about the unique political perspective and interviewing style of Jerry Brown.

Montage Jerry Brown
KQED Podcast: Inside the Political Mind of Jerry Brown

KQED Podcast: The Political Mind of Jerry Brown
From KQED: The Political Mind of Jerry Brown brings listeners the wisdom of the former Governor, Mayor, and presidential candidate. The Oral History Center’s Martin Meeker and Todd Holmes, and KQED’s Scott Shafer, interviewed Brown for more than 40 hours, covering the former governor’s life and half-century in the political game – and Brown has some lessons he’d like to share. Premiering January 8 with hour-long episodes on KQED 88.5 FM every Wednesday at 8pm through January 29.


New Release Oral History: Jerry Brown: A Life in California Politics

New Release Oral History: Jerry Brown: A Life in California Politics

By Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library

There are very few individuals who are what might be called a “shoe-in” for an Oral History Center life history interview. Governor Jerry Brown is one who easily qualifies. Brown’s career as an elected official began in Southern California in 1969 when he was elected to the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees and then continued for nearly the next fifty years through a succession of high offices. He was elected: in 1970 to serve as California Secretary of State; in 1974 and again in 1978 as California Governor; in 1998 and 2002 as Mayor of Oakland; in 2006 as California Attorney General; and, finally, in 2010 and 2014 as Governor of California, for a third and record fourth term. In the midst of, and in between these offices, he ran three times for President of the United States (1976, 1980, and 1992), he once was the Democratic Party nominee for the U.S. Senate in California (1982), was elected chair of the California Democratic Party (1989), and ran his own nonprofit, populist, quasi-political organization We the People out of a communal living space he custom-built in Oakland, California in the 1990s. For the historians at UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, the question was not, “Should this interview be done?” but rather, “How might it be done at all?”

Pat and Jerry Brown photo
Pat Brown and Jerry Brown in the 1970s

Edmund Gerald “Jerry” Brown Jr. was born April 7, 1938, in San Francisco, California. At the time of his birth, his father, Edmund Brown Sr., whom everyone knew as ‘Pat,’ already was deeply involved in the law and politics of San Francisco. He had a thriving law practice and had run for San Francisco District Attorney, with assistance from local players including William Newsom Sr., grandfather to the state’s current governor. After initial failures, Brown Sr. was elected district attorney (1943), then California Attorney General (in 1950 and 1954), and finally Governor of California in 1958 and 1962; he attempted to win a third term, but lost to Ronald Reagan in the watershed 1966 state election.

Pat Brown married Bernice Layne in 1930. Smart and educated at UC Berkeley, Bernice Layne Brown gave up an anticipated career in teaching for the roles of wife, mother, and homemaker, and was a forceful presence in the family and in the life of her only son, Jerry. Jerry Brown described his youth as a world apart from that of adults, not concerned with big issues or the problems of the day. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he developed a yearning for something more meaningful in his life as he grew into a young adult. He was educated at Catholic parochial schools and after high school choose to attend Santa Clara College (now University), a Jesuit school, before abandoning that route in favor of a life in the Catholic priesthood. He lived for three years at the Sacred Heart Jesuit Novitiate seminary before then wanting a deeper engagement with the world around him, which led him to UC Berkeley in 1960. He graduated from Berkeley in 1961 and immediately was accepted to Yale Law School, which he completed in 1964. Jerry Brown clerked for California State Supreme Court Justice Mathew Tobriner while he studied for the California Bar Exam, at the time living in the California governor’s mansion near the end of his father’s second term. Approaching the age of thirty, Jerry Brown moved to Los Angeles, where he joined the Tuttle & Taylor law firm and would soon make the initial steps beginning his career in politics.

The Oral History Project

Working as an interviewer with the Oral History Center (OHC) since 2004, I was long aware that Jerry Brown had not yet sat for an oral history and that it would eventually need to be done — I might say that it was one of the interviews I personally wanted to work on and see to fruition. Then, in 2018, with the end of Jerry Brown’s fourth term as governor in sight, the OHC began the planning process, yet still without the necessary financial resources in place to make it happen. Because the University of California does not underwrite the Center’s oral history projects, we worked to secure funding for this interview, which clearly was going to be longer than most. In this context came a call from Scott Shafer, the senior politics editor with San Francisco’s KQED. Shafer inquired if OHC had begun “the governor’s” oral history. Shafer and I arranged to speak, during which he shared his hope of producing a multi-episode podcast series documenting Brown’s political life. I was intrigued with the notion of partnering with KQED and, especially, with a political reporter whose work I greatly admired. I recognized that adding additional people and institutions to the mix might complicate the process and potentially change the outcomes, but Shafer and I decided that a partnership might be mutually advantageous from several angles, so we drafted a working plan.

First off, we assembled a project team, the core members of which would be myself, Scott Shafer, KQED politics reporter Guy Marzorati, and OHC political historian Todd Holmes. Additional KQED staff, most notably Queena Kim, would participate by managing the recording of the interviews; OHC staff, most centrally Jill Schlessinger and David Dunham with the capable assistance of Berkeley undergraduate JD Mireles managed the production of the final transcript and the preservation of the recordings. The project team agreed to schedule all meetings and interview sessions at the convenience of the governor with the mutual agreement of all interviewers. OHC pledged to manage the paperwork, transcription, editing, reviewing, and finalization of the complete interview transcript. OHC, as a research unit within The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, would also preserve, archive, and provide public access to the transcript and audio recordings. It is worth noting that OHC typically video records its oral histories, but in a planning meeting with the governor in January 2018, he made it clear that this was to be an audio-only “oral” history. Because KQED needed broadcast-quality recordings for their podcast series, KQED assumed responsibility for that portion of the work.

The project team recognized that a great deal of preparation and background research were going to be essential for a successful oral history. OHC oral historians and KQED staff agreed to collaborate to develop an overview interview outline at the commencement of the project and then, as the project unfolded, interview outlines in advance of each interview session. This exchange helped the interviewers establish not only a shared agenda, but also a unique method in which two, three, and sometimes even four people were asking questions of the governor. Still, we recognized from early on that collaboration was key. While one interviewer might take the lead in one portion of the interview or another, overall the research and interviewing responsibilities were shared.

With a general plan in place, the final piece required was the formal agreement of the governor to participate in what we anticipated would be multiple recording sessions resulting in roughly a forty hour interview. In fall 2018, Shafer and Marzorati worked closely with Evan Westrup, then press secretary to the governor, to present our plan. With Brown’s tentative consent to participate, Shafer, Marzorati, Holmes and I met the governor in the historic mansion on what was one of his final days in office. The governor’s schedule was packed with nonstop exit interviews but he took the time to meet with us, during which we discovered that, while interested, he was not yet quite sold on the idea. He asked several tough questions about the process, our agenda, and the anticipated outcomes. He was keenly aware that his father had done a life history interview with OHC (then the Regional Oral History Office) which was released in 1982 — and he later told us that the existence of that oral history was key in his decision to participate in one himself. In the months leading up to the end of his term, Brown proved reluctant to discuss his “legacy,” but he ultimately agreed to do the oral history.

This oral history is appropriately the first interview of the newly relaunched California State Government Oral History Program. At the same time the Brown interview was in the planning stages, we were working with the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State, the California State Archives, and the California State Librarian to get the state legislature to renew funding for this program. The program first was established in 1985 with a vote of the state legislature. The law said, “The Secretary of State shall conduct under the administration of the State Archives a regular governmental history documentation program to provide through the use of oral history a continuing documentation of state policy development as reflected in California’s legislative and executive history.” The program was initiated in 1986 and in the ensuing decades scores of elected officials, appointees, and key government staff were interviewed. The program continued until 2003, when funding was pulled due to the state financial crisis that year and was not immediately restored when the state budget returned to balance. For the fiscal year 2018–2019 state budget, Alex Padilla, California Secretary of State, secured funds to relaunch the program administered by the State Archives. The reinvestment in the California State Government Oral History Program was essential in getting this interview completed and now available as a benefit to the public.

The formal interview sessions began on February 4, 2019, at the Mountain House III, Jerry Brown’s historic ranch in Colusa County, California, which is where all interview sessions would be recorded. A total of twenty interview sessions were conducted between February and October 2, 2019, when the final session was completed. Sessions ran between, roughly, ninety minutes and three hours; on some days two sessions were recorded, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Typically, the project team convened at the Mountain House on Monday mornings, interviewed throughout the day, and then spent the night in the nearby town of Williams; we would then record another one or two sessions on Tuesday before returning home that afternoon.

The original plans for the interview called for each main interviewer to focus on distinct chapters in the long biography. While this did take place to a certain degree, a variety of factors led to a more improvisational structure. Todd Holmes was set to play the lead role for OHC, while Shafer was to be the lead interviewer on the KQED team. However, in June 2019, Holmes was forced to attend to an ongoing family medical emergency, so his role, unfortunately, became more limited in subsequent sessions; while Holmes contributed significantly to the research and questioning in the first several sessions, and continued to make important contributions to background research, he was unable to attend a number of interview sessions in which he was to play a lead role. When Holmes had to step away, fortunately Shafer was able and willing to fill in any gaps. My planned role as interviewer for this project was to focus on certain specific issues such as Brown’s engagement with new ideas and unconventional thinkers, his fiscal policies and approaches to taxation, his years relatively out of the spotlight between 1983 and 1998, and then his terms as Mayor of Oakland and California Attorney General. Shafer thus became the lead interviewer for this project, asking the majority of questions, pushing the governor on issues from election strategy to his relationship with singer Linda Rondstadt. Shafer brought his in-depth and on-the-ground knowledge of California politics, particularly of the players, the issues, and the trends to this project. Although working largely behind the scenes, the role of Guy Marzorati deserves attention: alongside myself and Holmes, Marzorati contributed greatly to the extensive research dossiers and interview outlines that guided this project. He also conducted numerous background interviews with Brown associates which both informed our questions as well as contributed to the KQED podcast series (we anticipate including these interviews in the OHC collection at a later date). Readers of the transcript will also see occasional contributions from Marzorati as well as Queena Kim and Evan Westrup. I also want to acknowledge the good fortune of having Miriam Pawel’s then-just published group biography of the Brown family, The Browns of California (2018), as a key resource.

The KQED team uploaded digital audio files for each interview session and those were shared with OHC. OHC then oversaw the transcription of each interview session. Draft transcripts were edited by myself and Todd Holmes. When editing the transcript, we kept the governor’s words unchanged in most every instance, making only minor edits to fix errors or improve clarity if our task was clear. We did edit the transcripts in two more substantive ways: first, the governor would sometimes appear to finish a response at which point a question would be asked, but then he resumed his original answer; this created a number of unnecessary disjunctures in the transcript which were easily resolved with the removal of the out-of-place questions (which were subsequently asked, usually verbatim). The second substantive edits came with removing “off the record” content or other extraneous conversation: the KQED audio engineer would begin the recordings prior to the official beginning of the interview and thus captured some material that was not intended for public release, so this was cut; similarly, the interview was sometimes interrupted by external sounds (phones ringing, dogs barking, guests arriving), so these were deleted from the final transcript as well.

Edited transcripts then were provided to the governor for review and to approve. Evan Westrup took the lead on ensuring the timely and thorough review of these transcripts. The governor made very few edits throughout the roughly 800 pages of transcripts. OHC staff then prepared a final transcript, which entailed entering Brown’s edits, preparing a discursive table of contents, and assembling the additional material included in this document. Former Governor Gray Davis, who served as Brown’s chief of staff between 1975 and 1981, generously contributed a thoughtful and thorough Foreword to this oral history. Shortly after the release of this transcript, it will be cataloged and archived by The Bancroft Library. It is available on the website of the Oral History Center and the University of California Berkeley’s online library catalog. We anticipate by late spring 2020, the complete audio recordings of the interview (edited to conform to the lightly edited transcript) will be available for users to listen to on the OHC website. Moreover, the recordings will be synchronized with the transcript to enable users to search full text content in this time-based media. All of the oral history materials (recordings and transcripts) will be deposited with the California State Archives and available to users through their website as well.

Considerations of the Interview

A question often heard by oral historians is: what is the difference between journalism and oral history? It is not the easiest question, but there are a few points upon which there is some agreement. Oral history interviews are, by definition, recorded, preserved, and made accessible, in some fashion and at some date, to the public — to researchers who may wish to quote from the interviews and from other researchers who want to confirm the use and context of those quotes. Many oral historians provide the interviewee, or the “narrator,” the opportunity to review the interview (recording and/or transcript) prior to its deposit in an archive or release to the public. This arrangement allows for candor in an often long-format interview because the narrator knows she or he will be able to edit, seal, or otherwise prevent material from public release. This is not standard operating procedure for journalists. Although simplifying the matter, journalists let those whom they are interviewing know if the conversation is “on the record” or “off the record;” rarely are interviewees given the opportunity to review and change quotes made “on the record.” This posed a challenge to the project team at the onset, but an easy compromise was made early on: the governor would in fact be given the opportunity to review and correct the final transcript, but everything on the recording that was deemed “on the record” would stay “on the record” and thus would be available for KQED to use in their podcast production. This created the potential for tricky moments down the road if the governor made substantial edits or embargoed portions of his interview. Fortunately, Brown is experienced, to say the least, with media engagement and understood that everything recorded was the on record. While he chose his words carefully, electing to discuss some issues obliquely or not at all, he remained engaged, thoughtful, and largely candid throughout the long interview process.

One additional way in which oral history methodology and radio journalism ran up against each other is the issue of silence. Oral historians are taught time and again to allow potentially awkward silence to happen in an interview. We are told: don’t immediately jump to a new question after the narrator finishes their response. As a void, silence likes to be filled and it is often productive to allow the narrator to fill that silence. Something new, unique, or thoughtful might be added. I’ve used this technique many times and it does tend to produce results. Silence for radio journalists, however, is the enemy: questions are asked quickly to keep the audience engaged and the interviewee talking and, perhaps, a little off balance. Moreover, this oral history featured two and often three interviewers. As a result, Jerry Brown’s oral history was in some ways more like a lengthy but still rapid-fire radio interview than the kind of collaborative and slowly-paced interviews oral historians typically create. So this interview, this transcript is very much a hybrid document that resides at the boundaries of radio journalism and oral history.

As much as the circumstances of this project proved unique for oral history, the narrator himself was far out of the ordinary as well. We are fortunate to have a nearly forty-hour interview providing ample evidence of the uniqueness of this subject, but I’ll venture a few observations here. Jerry Brown, I found, to be a man with a largely unwavering set of core values and principles who sometimes appears to choose contradictory ways in which to express those drives. I am not the first to observe his belief in the value of frugality and in the virtue of austerity. And sure enough, these twin strands are woven throughout this story, from entering the seminary, to refusing the usual trappings of office when he became governor (such as limousines), to even rejecting (and vetoing) his own party’s budget when he considered it profligate. Brown recognizes at a profound level that we live in a world with limits and therefore it is virtuous to learn to live with those limits, making the most of the precious resources, opportunities, and time that we have. There is a very neat intersection then between his Catholicism and his interest in and real engagement with Zen Buddhism, which came to a real meeting point in Japan in the 1980s when he met with Father Lassalle, Jesuit, and Yamada Roshi, a Zen Buddhist leader. At the same time, points that might be considered contradictions appear in his narrative. For example, Brown himself has expressed great distrust of major social institutions. I think the long-running distrust between Brown and the faculty and administration of the University of California system comes down to the former’s skepticism about the value and fear of the doctrinaire aspects of formal education (along with his suspicion that university professors fail to appreciate the value of austerity). Why then would a man so critical of large social institutions spend his life seeking to lead them? Brown offers answers to this critical question throughout the oral history. Perhaps most important among these is that Brown seems truly comfortable inhabiting these apparent contradictions.

I have conducted hundreds of oral histories, but engaging with Jerry Brown was a new experience for me. Partly this was due to the fact that there were often three interviewers in the room; partly it was Jerry Brown himself. As a lifelong politician, Brown has ample reason to be suspicious of journalists and, based on his wrangling with professors, he feels largely ambivalent about academics as well. So while Brown already knew Scott Shafer and he knew of the Oral History Center through his father’s interview, the interviewing team was still regarded as “the journalists and the academics.” As will be evident when reading the interview, Brown sees journalists as reducers and simplifiers while academics are mired in their concepts and jargon; neither group has a great track record of explaining the world — especially the world of politics as it really is. For example, in session eleven, I made the observation to the governor, “You certainly had a domestic policy through line in your first two terms of governor.” He responds quickly and dismissively, “Wait, let me just back up to your through line—that’s another one of your metaphors.” Yet, then proceeds to offer a very thoughtful answer of the question. This type of interplay marked the entire interview process: sometimes it was productive and interesting, while at other times it became a little trying. But I think all recognized that this was the way in which Brown has always thought and engaged with others, friend and foe alike: not satisfied with pablum or fuzzy thinking, vigorous discussion and pointed debate were necessary to push any project forward. That spirit certainly reigned in this oral history interview.

Contributions of this Oral History

Jerry Brown
Jerry Brown

The purpose of oral history interviews is to create, preserve, and make accessible first-person accounts of lived history. Although Oral History Center staff regularly offer interpretations and analyses of their interviews, the prime goal in this center is to create documents (recordings and transcripts) that are not beholden to a single historian’s research objectives but rather attempt to seek information and ideas on a wide range of topics relevant to their narrator’s interests and expertise. To the extent that this is possible, we like to project and consider things that future generations might be interested in, and then ask our narrators to respond. So, any consideration of the contributions of a single oral history will be limited knowing its likely contributions today.

Speculation of future uses of this oral history aside, there are at least three main areas of study of the life of Jerry Brown, and politics much more broadly, that might be impacted by the contents of this interview from today’s vantage point: the historical trajectory of key social and political issues; the influence of creative and unique ideas upon Brown and his agenda; and what might be called the philosophy of realpolitik — of how politics really works, at least according to Brown. In this oral history, we questioned Jerry Brown about many of the key social and political issues of today and of decades past. We explored a variety of issues in the context of his first two terms as governor (1975–1983) and then how those issues disappeared, reappeared, or morphed during his second two terms (2007–2019). A short list of these issues includes: taxation, criminal justice, education, the environment, and immigration. One example of a particularly revealing exchange comes with Brown’s own narrative of the People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxes, better known as Prop 13 (1978). In his telling, he rebuffs critics from within his own party who disliked his embrace of the reform after it was enthusiastically passed by voters, saying, “I never could quite follow that [criticism]. It’s the law. Now, no one seriously said you should subvert the law — what does that mean?” He further details what he did to prevent the passage of the law but then also the actions he took so that when the law was implemented something other than disaster would strike. Secondly, we asked Brown about a variety of esoteric thinkers he has engaged with and how those individuals and their ideas influenced his work of governing, a topic little explored by historians to date. Stewart Brand, Ivan Illich, Gregory Bateson, Sim Van der Ryn, and others appear in this transcript as Brown relishes in their ideas and even explains how they were made (or were attempted to be made) into programs and policy. Finally, and I think most importantly, this oral history, taken as a whole, represents a kind of philosophy of politics and governance. This philosophy manifests in the many pithy phrases he utters (“If nobody’s complaining, then there’s no issue, no one does anything”) as well as the longer and often substantive disquisitions on the central themes and pivotal moments of his half century in public service (such as the decision to run for president in 1976 and 1980 and what he learned from those defeats).

This oral history now joins OHC’s already major collection of interviews in California political history. In addition to the aforementioned life history with Governor Pat Brown (and the much larger “Goodwin Knight and Edmund G. Brown Gubernatorial Eras in California” project), OHC has conducted oral histories with California Governor and US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, Secretary of State March Fong Eu, as well as major projects on the Ronald Reagan Gubernatorial Era and Women in California Politics. As previously mentioned, the Jerry Brown oral history is the first interview of the newly relaunched California State Government Oral History Program sponsored by the California Secretary of State, State Archives.

OHC Director’s Column – December 2019

From the Director…

The Oral History Center Top 10 of 2019

With Thanksgiving falling late on the calendar this year, all of the sudden things are feeling very rushed in the lead up to 2020. Despite that feeling, your friends here at the Oral History Center set aside a few moments to reflect on some of the more memorable episodes of 2019. This year we again conducted about 500 hours of interviews and did a whole lot more too, such as produced two seasons of our podcast series, The Berkeley Remix, taught scores of eager students about oral history, and traveled the nation to record our interviews. The countdown that follows, then, is just a snapshot of those times that made us laugh, let us weep, and forced us to sit back in awe of the impactful research we do and the wonderful stories we are honored to record.

  1. OHC historian Shanna Farrell started an oral history book club. Her first selection was Patrick Radden Keefe’s remarkable new book, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (if you want to know more, check out the not-so-oral history transcript of our conversation). 


  1. The work of the Center was featured wide and far through a variety of media, providing an ever-larger opportunity for folks to engage with the work that we do. OHC oral histories were featured on podcasts such as East Bay Yesterday, California Report Magazine, and The Dropout (about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes); and news of our work was featured in California Magazine and regularly on Berkeley News and even a few times on the homepage of the Berkeley website, thanks to the efforts of our newest employee, Communications Manager Jill Schlessinger.


  1. A 2019 highlight for OHC historian Roger Eardley-Pryor was his interview with H. Anthony “Tony” Ruckel, former President of the Sierra Club. Ruckel helped pioneer the then-nascent field of environmental law. Roger recalled, “During his interview, Tony explained how, in 1969, as a ‘green’ 29-year-old lawyer, he brought the precedent-setting Parker v. United States case under the Wilderness Act of 1964 to protect land near Vail, Colorado that eventually became Eagle’s Nest Wilderness. To prepare for his interview, I read Tony’s book on environmental law, Voices for the Earth (2014), while backpacking through the Emigrant Wilderness in the high Sierra Nevada, just north of Yosemite National Park. What better place to read about Tony’s efforts to preserve wilderness than a designated wilderness area!”
Eardley-Pryor in wilderness
Roger Eardley-Pryor reading the history of the wilderness in the wilderness
  1. On occasion, we have the opportunity to host a special event celebrating the completion of an oral history. In August, we fệted Anne Halsted, the community advocate who has spent tireless decades serving many nonprofit organizations and government agencies striving to improve communities in the Bay Area. After the formal presentation, those attending were treated to spontaneous memories and tributes; perhaps the one that got the most applause was when someone proclaimed that Halsted should have been our first female President! This event also marked the official kick-off of our new oral history project on Women in Politics — check back in 2020 for more news on this.
Anne Halsted
OHC narrator, Anne Halsted
  1. East Bay Yesterday host Liam O’Donoghue was the keynote speaker at the 2019 Summer Institute and provided the group assembled with a complex view into the history of our region that clearly demonstrated the power of oral history to bring the past alive. 


  1. Shanna Farrell reflected on 2019 and concluded a highlight for her was traveling to New York to interview the celebrated abstract sculptor Mel Edwards. Farrell wrote, “His work is so powerful and he’s so intelligent that meeting him in person was a really gratifying experience. Participating in the Getty Trust oral history project, even in a small way, has been one of the best oral history projects on which I’ve worked.”
Mel Edwards
Artist Mel Edwards
  1. HBO released to wide-acclaim its popular miniseries Chernobyl, based on the collection of oral histories Voices of Chernobyl. The author of this book, Svetlana Alexievich, won 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature in part for this work. (This book will be the first OHC book club selection of 2020 — why not read along with us?)


  1. When asked about 2019, OHC historian Paul Burnett was momentarily stumped, but then replied, “In an annual roundup, it’s a bit unusual to write about something that began in the fall of 2017, but my work with UC Berkeley engineering scientist George Leitmann qualifies. At twenty-three hours, his oral history is a very deep dive into one person’s life story. More than that, George and I spent many hours poring over photo albums, looking at artifacts, and planning the final look of the interview volume. His oral history is extraordinary, not only because it showcases an extraordinary person, which he is; but also because of the extraordinary history he witnessed.”


  1. Producing our own podcasts were definitely a highlight. We released two seasons this year — 6 full-length episodes! The first was called Let There Be Light: 150 Years of UC Berkeley. This featured three episodes edited and narrated by three OHC historians (Paul Burnett, Amanda Tewes, and Shanna Farrell); the podcasts provided three snapshots of Cal’s history at 150 years. The second season was Hidden Heroes, which drew upon the interviews of the East Bay Regional Park District Oral History Project. Produced by Shanna Farrell and Francesca Fenzi, these three episodes built upon the stories told in the interviews, illustrating, we think, the transformative power of oral history and the important role of parklands in our lives.


  1. And, drumroll, the Number One on this list comes from yours truly. We’ve made no secret of the fact that in 2019 we partnered with local public radio station KQED and the California State Archives to conduct Governor Jerry Brown’s oral history. The interview is done and we’re currently editing the transcript for release in January (finger’s crossed!). I joined KQED’s Scott Shafer and our own OHC historian Todd Holmes in asking the questions, and, as you’ll see when it is released, there were highlight points-a-many in the result exchanges. But one special moment I’ll recall for a good long time was when the dialog changed from historian-and-governor to gardener-and-gardener. During one lunch break in the blazing heat of summer at the governor’s ranch, Brown admitted to me that he was concerned about the progress of his tomatoes: were those blotches a disease? Why was there no fruit yet? I was happy to provide a quick consultation and when I returned a few weeks later, I was relieved to see a healthy bush ripe with cherry tomatoes! 
Gov. Brown and Martin Meeker
OHC Director Martin Meeker consulting Governor Brown on his tomato bushes

I hope that everyone in the reach of this newsletter had the good fortune of experiencing their own top 10 moments of 2019 and wish more such positive memories and proud accomplishments for 2020. It is imperative that I recognize the OHC Top 10 could not have happened without the support of so many people: the OHC staff is second-to-none and are a pleasure to work with; our student employees continue working quietly but so professionally and productively behind the scenes; and, without question, our narrators’ gift of their time and their memories is the beating heart of our work, and always will be. Our generous partners and individual sponsors make this work possible, and we are deeply grateful for the support that they provide. We hope that you, too, will remember the Oral History Center as you make your year-end gifts — and we make it easy for you to do so here. We’ve got some great things planned for 2020, so please continue on this journey will us in the months and years to come. 

Martin Meeker
Charles B. Faulhaber Director
Oral History Center







Remembering a First Response to the Epidemic on World AIDS Day

In 1988, the World Health Organization established World AIDS Day, one of eight major global health campaigns begun by the United Nations. It stands today as a reminder that, after forty years, tens of millions of people have died of HIV/AIDS, and approximately 37 million are currently living with the disease. It also should remind us of how terrifying this disease is, how it hurts those the most who have the fewest resources with which to defend themselves, and how we are nowhere near an end to the spread of HIV and the suffering it causes.

Photograph shows the AIDS memorial quilt laid out in groupings on the floor. Dozens of people wander around the perimeter of the groupings.
AIDS memorial quilt laid out in groupings on the floor of the Tom McEnery Convention Center, 1989.

Last year, the Oral History Center released a 7-episode podcast about the first efforts to understand, track, and treat a mysterious new illness that was killing gay men in San Francisco. Based on the three dozen interviews conducted by Center historian Sally Smith Hughes, First Response: AIDS and Community in San Francisco highlights both the larger context of the arrival of the epidemic and the on-the-ground drama of the physicians, nurses, epidemiologists, and laboratory researchers who were fighting for scarce resources while also fighting the disease.

For decades now, HIV/AIDS has been evolving into different disease, as it spread around the world into new social, economic, technological, and cultural contexts. By 2010, new infections in the United States were three times as likely to be among African American and Latino populations as among white men, for example.

There is therefore a lot of work for us to do at the Oral History Center to map the past thirty years of the epidemic. Sadly, however, many of the themes of First Response are still relevant today: the stigmatization of the disease, a reluctance to pay for the public-health and primary-care interventions necessary to check the spread of HIV, and our general struggle to address the larger context in which survivors of HIV find themselves. For now, we will be working with partners to develop curriculum content for Grade 11 classrooms across the country around the First Response podcast and our collection of interviews. If you would like to help with this work developing assignments and content for educators, please contact Paul Burnett at



OHC’s Inaugural Book Club: A Not-So-Oral History Conversation About “Say Nothing”

As oral historians, we’ve heard a lot about the Belfast Project, which collected interviews with people who were on both sides of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the implications that it had for ethics, transparency, and best practices for our work. Interviews were recorded, confessions to crimes were made, and the transcripts were archived at Boston College. And then they were subpoenaed, spurring endless questions and conversations about what we can and can’t promise to our narrators. (For more details, this paper outlines the history of The Troubles and the case in detail.)

But, in the summer of 2019, Patrick Radden Keefe published Say Nothing, a book outlining the case and the use of oral history, challenging what many of us thought we knew. Here’s the description from his publisher, Penguin Random House:

“In December 1972, Jean McConville, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of ten, was dragged from her Belfast home by masked intruders, her children clinging to her legs. They never saw her again. Her abduction was one of the most notorious episodes of the vicious conflict known as The Troubles. Everyone in the neighborhood knew the I.R.A. was responsible. But in a climate of fear and paranoia, no one would speak of it. In 2003, five years after an accord brought an uneasy peace to Northern Ireland, a set of human bones was discovered on a beach. McConville’s children knew it was their mother when they were told a blue safety pin was attached to the dress–with so many kids, she had always kept it handy for diapers or ripped clothes.

Say Nothing
Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

The Not-So-Transcript of the Not-So-Oral History of Our Conversation About Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

Shanna Farrell: Let’s start with your favorite parts of the book.

Amanda Tewes: For me, it’s always really fascinating to hear about history from a memory perspective. This book reminded me of an extension of Portelli’s The Death of Luigi Trastulli and the idea that there are all these events but everybody disagrees on what happened. They remember it differently, but he’s bringing together a story based on not only the history, but also the memory, and how that clouds perception even today.

Martin Meeker: Admittedly, I listened to it and didn’t read it.  That’s actually one of my favorite parts—listening to it—because the gentleman who read it has this amazing Irish accent. It’s quite enjoyable. 

Roger Eardley-Pryor: It’s so good. His accent is beautiful. It put another layer of enjoyment on it. 

Meeker: But, what I really liked was that this is a story that I think a lot of oral historians think they know something about. It became clear pretty early on that it’s not only the story the oral history project, but one that really needs to be put in the context of the larger Troubles in Northern Ireland. Even though they move the project to the United States, they couldn’t they couldn’t move The Troubles out of it.

Eardley-Pryor: One of the things that I really loved about the book was the memories that it inspired in me. I studied and lived in Ireland in 1999. It was a year after The Good Friday Agreement was signed and Gerry Adams was on TV a lot representing Sinn Fein and forming this Peace Coalition. I remember walking through Belfast and one street had tri-colored Irish Flags painted on the curbs and flags that run between buildings, so you’re clearly in a Catholic space. And then you’d turn the corner and the roads are all painted red white and blue with the Union Jack with British flags flying between the houses. And, what I also loved about this book is how you follow individual characters through their own journey with The Troubles. That was just so Illuminating. 

Meeker: Shanna, did you have a favorite part of it? 

Farrell: My favorite thing about this book was the pacing of it. I really liked how he doled out the stories, which is something that I like in fiction a lot. One chapter tells one story and then you pause and go to another character. 

Meeker: I noticed how it unfolded, too, which worked really well for a nonfiction book. The historical actors are not usually characters, right? They’ll appear, they’ll make their contribution to history, and then they’ll disappear. But the people in this book get woven back into the story. You’re introduced to Dolours Price and Ed Moloney and Brendan Hughes early on and then they’ll come back in. You really get us a sense of their role in this long, unfolding history that covers decades. It’s really artfully done. 

Farrell: It really engaged me. It was definitely a page turner.

Meeker: It would be interesting to talk to the author, Patrick Radden Keefe, to figure out how he came up with the process of integrating the story of the tapes into the book. Did he decide beforehand that they would be a pivotal part of the story? You rarely get a nonfiction writer to spend that much time talking about the research methodology. But as it turns out, the research is a big part of the story. 

Farrell: Yeah, and super dramatic. I think that’s why it’s part of the story. That was actually one of my questions. Could this have been a book without oral history and the existence of the Belfast Project?

Tewes: With this particular book, no, because he does seem really taken with the idea of memory and the differing accounts of who said what when. The same person could have several different accounts. It seems to have been an important part of the book. So oral history, I think, made it that much richer. I’d like to know like how he decided to use oral history and at what point he decided to drive the narrative by adding dialogue to these characters, which he’s really taking it out of previous conversations and oral history. 

Meeker: That’s really fascinating to me. 

Eardley-Pryor: I was surprised at the end where they describe the sources. I thought he only had access to Brendan Hughes’ and one other person’s actual transcripts, right?

Farrell: That one of my big questions. I wasn’t sure whose oral histories he had access to. That brings me to my next question: what did you know about this case or project before the book, and how did this challenge what you thought you knew?

Tewes: As Martin said, I think this is something a lot of oral historians think they know. I remember when the case happened in 2013. I had taken my IRB test in 2015 and it was already part of the curriculum about why this was a problematic approach to doing oral history. So, I’d read a few articles and thought I understood what was going on. But, clearly there was a lot more happening behind the scenes and the politics in Ireland were just as important as what I was reading about in Boston College’s approach to the project. I feel like the way oral historians had discussed this was really divorced from the larger context. 

Meeker: Yeah, I’d agree with that. I think that my perspective around the mainstream oral history discourse about this seemed to be: “How dare they try to take these sacrosanct interviews that are under seal? We need to marshal our resources and fight.” Oral historians tended to link it to academic freedom, which I always thought to be a strange argument, but, I followed it. This book shows that the story is far more complex than that and the behavior of those who were running this program was pretty reprehensible. It is a really important case study, I think, for graduate students or anyone interested in oral history dealing with anything that’s sensitive to know that you can’t promise anonymity in this way. 

Eardley-Pryor: I had the same reaction to how this book flipped my understanding of the ethical issues involved in the oral history case. Initially, I thought how dare the British government come in and take advantage of this project when the people who participated in it were protected.  The ethical flip is actually that the project itself was structured in a way that they couldn’t protect the narrators. The real challenge was how the project was organized, not how the British government demanded access to it. 

Tewes: The book outlines what the people were promised, but where’s the official document?

Eardley-Pryor: They had different points of view, right? The Unionist interviewer thought for sure that everything was sealed tight until everyone was dead. The IRA interviewer, McIntyre, seemed to say it’s when the individual dies that we can release their transcripts. That’s totally different for people involved in the same project, right? 

Farrell: Right. It was a little fuzzy if they were going to release the project when everyone interviewed died, but when Brendan Hughes died they released his tapes and that seemed to be a violation of what they were told. But one passage [on page 286] says, “The men had also never decided just who would be allowed to access the interviews. The conversations had always been about ‘the future students of Boston College.’ But the history department at the college had not known, until the publication of Moloney’s book, that the project was happening at all. In fact, the archive had been so secret that almost nobody at Boston College, apart from [Tom] Hachey and [Bob] O’Neill, knew that it existed.”

Meeker: This brings up an interesting point. The project was always with the library, not the History Department. I’m not sure the History Department should even be brought into it. I would hate if there was an ethical problem in our office and someone from the History Department was interviewed about it. They’d say that they are the historians on campus and didn’t know about it.

Tewes: I just wanted to point out that they did not actually release the tapes when Brendan Hughes died. They released a book written about the transcript of the tapes. When we start getting technical about subpoenas for transcripts and tapes, it’s like there was always an edited version they were presenting.

Eardley-Pryor: Just as this entire book is an edited individual subjective take on the topic. They only had access to three oral histories of the whole project. All of the storytelling in this book is based on Keefe’s own research interviewing the actual people who worked on the project. He interviews Anthony McIntyre and talks about having dinners with him and his wife.

Farrell: Yeah, there were two interviewers on the project, one was who was supposed to interview the British Loyalists.

Eardley-Pryor: The British Terrorists.

Farrell: And the other interviewed the Republicans, so it was the IRA versus the RUC. 

Eardley-Pryor: McIntyre did the Irish interviews and it seemed like the author of this book had a real buddy-buddy relationship with him, sitting down to dinner with him and his wife, having cocktails together, asking pointed questions like “This is my theory, but what actually happened?” Keefe writes that McIntyre wouldn’t say yes or no, but wouldn’t deny things.

Meeker: But was there a record of exactly what the project leads said to the people who are being interviewed? I vaguely remember there being something in this book about that, but he does talk about the ambiguity. He says [on page 286], “in fact, there were quite a few fairly important points upon which their original conception of the project had been ambiguous. For instance, Wilson McArthur, Anthony McIntyre’s counterpart, who conducted all the interviews in the loyalist community, had been under the impression, as he was gathering the oral histories, that none of the interviews would be made public until all of the participants had died. He was caught off guard by the news that Moloney intended to publish Voices from the Grave just a few years after the last interviews had interviews had concluded, thereby revealing the existence of the archive when the first participants had died, rather than waiting decades until the last ones had.” I wonder if there were forms or if this was just ‘this is how we’re going to do the project’ and maybe they forgot to mention part of it.

Farrell: Well, there was a legal release. But I think one of the arguments that people make against the people who organized the project was that they weren’t trained oral historians. And that’s a huge problem. 

Eardley-Pryor: It’s a big problem. 

Meeker: It’s also interesting to think about sources. Gerry Adams wouldn’t talk to him.

Farrell: That’s not a surprise. He had to rely on the members of the IRA who served alongside Gerry Adams. He had the complete unredacted transcript of the Brendan Hughes interview, which Keefe said became an indispensable source. But apart from that oral history, no one would share any of the interviews with him. He never had access to the oral histories of Dolours Price. 

Eardley-Pryor: So he only had access to Brendan Hughes’s oral history and that’s it? 

Farrell: That’s it. Everything else was like telephone through McIntyre.

Tewes: Another researcher did an interview with Dolours Price, so he got the transcript from her.

Meeker: He did do interviews on his own. He interviewed the McConville kids.

Eardley-Pryor: And people who did their own memoirs. My sense from reading it was that he had done a ton of outside reading of other people’s own stories within the IRA.

Farrell: Here’s an interesting follow-up from the “Notes on Source” section: “Several years ago, Boston College started informing people who had participated in the project that they could have their interviews back. The university, burned by its own carelessness in handling such incendiary material, wanted to jettison its responsibility as custodian of the tapes. Many of the participants took the university up on it. One of them was Ricky O’Rawe. One day, he received a box from Boston College containing the recordings and transcripts of his conversations with McIntyre from more than a decade earlier. At first, O’Rawe could not decide what to do with them. Then he had an idea. He took the CDs and transcripts into the study in his house and lit a fire in the fireplace. Then he opened a nice bottle of Bordeaux and poured himself a glass…O’Rawe tossed his testimony into the flames. Then he drank the Bordeaux and watched it burn.” This is very descriptive. 

Eardley-Pryor: That’s why I love his writing.

Tewes: That’s crazy because Ricky [O’Rawe] wrote his own book [Blanketmen]. So yes, he had his own perspective, which was maybe pared down a bit, but he clearly was comfortable sharing some level of his interview. 

Eardley-Pryor: What was in those tapes that he wasn’t comfortable with?

Tewes: Right? 

Eardley-Pryor: That’s the curious part. 

Meeker: I think it’s also like the title of the book: say nothing. Both the IRA and the Loyalist sides were sworn to secrecy under the penalty of execution, which was the whole reason that Jean McConville got in trouble to begin with, true or not. All of these people were shown to be talking about secret things and recording them. 

Tewes: I’m glad you brought that up because we’ve been talking about the legal and ethical problems on the project, but as a narrator, I’m wondering if they felt comfortable with the person who is interviewing them and what their intention for participating in this project. For Dolours Price, I am a little bit convinced that there is some sort of self-destructive purging of the sins that she hoped it would come out. In many ways, she seemed to be tempting fate, even at the end, before she passed away. 

Meeker: Like she would admit to a murder? 

Tewes: Yes

Farrell: Because she did on tape.

Tewes: Yeah.

Eardley-Pryor: In the second interview especially. There’s a desire for truth.

Tewes: I felt both Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price were upset by people saying nothing. Gerry Adams was no longer part of the IRA and now there are different version of history. 

Eardley-Pryor: And they are Catholics, too. I wonder if there’s some sort of confessional aspect to it as well.

Farrell: Or Like atonement?

Meeker: Oh, interesting.

Farrell: It’s confession. 

Tewes: Quite literally.

Meeker: Yeah, there wasn’t a mention about relationship between interviewing and confession. 

Farrell: No, but that would have been really interesting. 

Meeker: I’ve always thought about that connection. That’s so Foucault: the pleasure of the interview as confession. 

Tewes: I don’t know if this is a question that you were thinking about Shanna, but I was really struck as an interviewer trying to understand someone like McIntyre’s thought process behind the interviews. Keefe mentions that McIntyre was not an impartial person in this situation, and he was never meant to be. I wonder what would have happened if there had been an impartial interviewer, or at least someone a bit outside the system, in that room with them. Would those stories have come out? Would this have become a legal case?

Eardley-Pryor: It’s a really good question. Could the Belfast Project have happened if there were impartial participants doing the interviews?

Meeker: I think that’s an important question. Would any of these people have agreed to be interviewed in the first place? 

Farrell: Has this book changed the way that you think about oral history?

Eardley-Pryor: It changed the way I think about narrating a story using oral history. This book was great. I thought Keefe told a great story that was a page-turner based on really great research.

Tewes: I have a greater appreciation for the IRB process. I was on the other side of this debate before reading this book, actually. I thought the IRB review was defunct for oral history because it didn’t understand what we do and we have our own set of ethics. But, if an IRB panel had heard any of this from Boston College, I know they would have shut it down. They could have prevented a lot of the issues that came up after. I realized it’s not only for people who aren’t familiar with oral history, but for people who are trying to work outside the system that is set up to protect our narrators, and ourselves, legally.

Meeker: This contributed to thinking that I’ve been engaged with about oral history and the feeling I’m getting from a lot of my interviews lately. I feel like there is an increasing concern with image. People are unwilling or uninterested to discuss more controversial things or things that could possibly be controversial at some point in the future. Some of my interviews, despite my best efforts, are turning into public relations exercises. That’s not the kind of work that I want to do.

 Farrell: It’s made me think a little bit more about the agency of oral history and the power of being a narrator, what that experience is like for them. It’s almost like oral history was a character in the book because it had such strong agency to create a lot of these things. It’s more powerful than I think sometimes we give it credit for, mostly because this is what we do every day. It made me take a step back and think about the potential of projects that we could do here at the Oral History Center. 

New Release Oral History: George Miller

George Miller: ‘Gamos’ and Other Tales from Sam’s Grill

by Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director of the Oral History Center

The title of this particular oral history reveals not only something about its content, it provides some hint about the circumstances of the interview itself. In this transcript, you’ll see the usual Oral History Center (OHC) template of question followed by answer and so forth, but befitting the setting of the interview — San Francisco’s historic Sam’s Grill — this exchange was more a wide-ranging conversation. It turns out that George Miller, our featured narrator here, doesn’t much like the spotlight. Although he has many accomplishes to boast, he would prefer to talk ideas and give space to those things that he finds important, interesting, confounding, and amusing.

George Miller, left
George Miller (left) with Warren Hinckle, whom Miller called “the Great One.” Miller writes, “Doubleplay 2/6/16. The Great One’s last public appearance. Raphael (the bartender) is so proud… he served Warren his last drink.”

You will learn in this interview that George Miller first came to know the Oral History Center in the course of serving as a volunteer archivist, processing collections in our home, The Bancroft Library. Surrounding himself with many other very interesting and accomplished individuals, Miller asked the then OHC director if we might like to do an oral history with Thomas Graff, a man who was deeply active in environmental politics and a leader of the Environmental Defense Fund. It was agreed that Graff was a very worthy subject and Miller generously sponsored the interview. Over the following decade, Miller nominated — and underwrote — many more oral histories, thus helping OHC maintain its operations while also contributing to expansion of the oral history collection at Berkeley. As of 2019, the list includes: Jake Warner, Rick Laubscher, Will Travis, Joe Bodovitz, Anne Halsted, Michael Teitz, Jim Chappell, John Briscoe (in 2020), and, last but not least, a forty-hour interview with Warren Hinckle. As the interviewer for the Bodovitz and Travis interviews, I first met Miller around 2014. I recall an informal tipple at the Faculty Club cocktail lounge when I think I finally pieced it together: 1. He was not George Miller, the congressman; 2. Despite his rather informal façade, he is a very serious thinker; and 3. That plaque above a urinal in the men’s restroom at the club? It honored none other than George Miller, our partner in these interviews.

After engaging with Miller over the years, I suggested that he should sit for an oral history interview himself. This suggestion, and the many that followed, were rebuffed with silence. As time went on, however, I began better to grasp the necessity of conducting his oral history, despite the refusal of the potential narrator, Miller himself. So, I pressured a bit more and enlisted the support of a few allies. He finally agreed to entertain the idea, and after a few lunches at Sam’s to hash over the idea, he ultimately consented. He reasoned, to paraphrase, it might be better to do something and regret it, than not do it at all. Still, Miller made it clear that he didn’t want a conventional interview that would run point-by-point through his life. He also wanted to do these sessions at Sam’s. Neither scope nor setting would be conventional, but that was fine with me. As you read the interview, you might see that my typical interviewing structure tended to impose itself on the proceedings, but the setting and, certainly, the narrator shook things up a bit. What you have here, then, in just a bit over five hours, is an opinionated, informed, humane, rollicking, and oftentimes deeply humorous running commentary on a wide-ranging set of specific events and big themes. We get a glimpse into the history of investing and the psychology of the market; we learn of Miller’s commitment to the environment and his iconoclastic effort to restore Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley (by tearing down a massive dam); we gain insight into Bay Area urbanism and the challenges faced by those trying to improve it; and we are treated to a unique philanthropic vision for the University of California, Berkeley, and beyond. But even more than these topics, this interview invites you to pull up a stool at the bar and hear the musings and be regaled with well told stories by someone who really has seen it all.


OHC Advanced Oral History Alum Spotlight: Meagan Gough

by Shanna Farrell


Meagan Gough attended the Oral History Center’s Advanced Summer Institute in August 2017. We recently caught up with her to see how her time with us helped her develop her project around the Semá:th First Nation in British Columbia, who an indigenous to Canada.

Meagan Gough
Meagan Gough

Q: You attended the Summer Institute in 2017. What were you working on when you joined us?

MG: The Semá:th Traditional Use and Occupancy Project (“TUOS”) invited the participation of Semá:th community members from the Semá:th First Nation in British Columbia, Canada to document their connection to, and care-taking responsibilities over, natural and cultural resources within Semá:th traditional Territory and beyond. The TUOS project combines oral history interviews, GIS Mapping historical research and community engagement and events to accomplish the following goals:

  • To record and map how access, use and occupancy of important cultural and natural resources is determined and understood by a diverse group of Semá:th Knowledge Holders made up of men, women, Elders, youth, political and spiritual leadership.
  • To add layers to the existing historical record about Semá:th culture, history and identity through the transmission of two main types of Semá:th oral history: Sqwélqwel (genealogy or “true news”) and sxwōxwiyám (stories of long ago, origin stories).
  • Engage Semá:th Knowledge holders in vision for future caretaking of land, water and air to reflect Semá:th history, culture and protocol.
  • Assert Semá:th Right and Title through policy and practice, including Specific Land Claims.
  • Celebrate and promote Semá:th cultural identity, knowledge
  • Strengthen the capacity of the Semá:th Lands & Resources Department to respond to development referrals in Semá:th Territory.
  • Draw upon community input to create and support opportunities for lands-based activities and programs in the community.
  • Support seeking solutions to the mental health and suicide crisis in community using lands-based teaching and oral history.


Q: How did your time at the Summer Institute inform your project?

MG: Participation in the Advanced Institute provides  a unique opportunity for general learning, reflection and engagement with oral history methods, practices and projects but also to workshop our own individual projects. This allowed us as participants to move between the macro and big picture methods, debates and teachings of oral history which inform our work and the practical individual application of this knowledge into practice in our own projects.

I found this to be a deeply enriching experience, particularly because my small group was comprised of scholars and researchers from diverse disciplines. As a scholar who draws simultaneously from disciplines of cultural anthropology, history and oral history, the input provided to me about my project during our small group presentation was extremely helpful and came into practical use since. Given the central importance of oral record in the Semá:th community,  I came to the Advanced Institute with questions about ideas of how to engage community youth and elders using oral history interviews and storytelling to draw upon this record.

One suggestion was an Elder-Youth storytelling circle. A version of this became one of the central activities in Phase 3 of our project. Our Elder-Youth Storytelling event invited Elders and Youth to take turns in the roles of speaker and listener: We matched Youth and Elders and first the Elders shared lands based knowledge and oral history. The youth then had a two week period to reflect upon and interpret this oral history and present it back to the Elders and the group via a medium of their choice: writing, poetry, spoken word, song, dance, performance, and visual arts were all encouraged. The Elders then assumed the roles of listener. The circle had multiple goals: to fortify relations between Elders and Youth, to provide a unique opportunity for the transmission of traditional and historical cultural knowledge, and to encourage the exploration of the dialogical elements of such an exchange. How did the youth interpret the stories? Did the speakers feel their stories were understood as they intended them? The Youths’ art projects are currently displayed in the Semá:th Band office.

The second primary way that participation in the Institute informed our project was the inspiration I took from some of our key presenters, especially the Oakland Chinese Community Oral history project. This is where I learned about the concept of a Storymap – a digital multimedia platform to preserve and present community maps. In 2018 and Phase 3 of TUOS project, we commenced the creation of our own Storymap. Through the use of oral histories and photographs shared via TUOS interviews with Semá:th Knowledge Holders, the Semá:th Genealogy Mapping Storymap was aimed at using geneology to map the movement of ancestors of the Semá:th First Nation.


Q: What is the status of the Semá:th Traditional Use Study now?

MG: We have received successful funding from BCCI our funding agency, and commenced Phase 4 of the TUOS project. To date, we have recorded over 25 oral history interviews with Semá:th Knowledge Holders, as well mapped over 500 traditional use sites. We have created a database to archive and preserve this information so it may be used by Lands Department staff to respond to the overwhelming number of referrals from government and industry involving Semá:th Lands. We have also conducted historical and archival research and created a Semá:th historical photo collection, also housed in the database. We have hosted a number of community events which sought to seek input from Knowledge Holders as well as to keep them informed about the status of the project.


Q: You’ve described the Summer Institute having ripple effects on your work. Can you tell us more about this?

MG: My participation in the Advanced Institute was, without exaggeration, by far the most enriching professional experience I have had in terms of a course or workshop. Having practiced oral history interviewing for over 15 years, I came away generally feeling inspired, refreshed and also extremely appreciative of having my practical workshop questions answered. I was able to continue to build upon the input of my small group colleagues to integrate it into our project. I made professional contacts from around the world, some of whom have gone on to become friends. The ability to workshop our projects with a small group truly allows a deep insight into the workings of other oral history projects and by virtue of listening how technical, ethical and practical elements are addressed and resolved. The ripples of my participation are evident in tangible form via the practical application of my learning at the Institute into the creation of the Storymap as well as our Elder-Youth Storytelling Circle Event.


Q: What’s next for the project? What’s next for you?

MG: We are currently in Phase 4 of our project, we are building another “layer” of our Storymap this year which maps how traditional caretaking responsibilities extend far beyond the borders of reserve (reservation) lands across the Province, country and Internationally into the United States. We are also contributing chapters to a forthcoming publication exploring hidden histories of British Columbia. (Working title, stay tuned!) The interviews are being used in a number of capacities, asserting Right and Title to Lands, including specific land claims, on reserve lands based policy, negotiation with industry and Government.

For myself, I have just become a first time mom, so life is busy and I am full of joy and gratitude. As I write this now, I consider it a dispatch from “babyland” a unique space of the spirit and one which provides a new lens on everything in life. I hope to share the beauty and power of listening, of stories and of learning with my baby as she grows. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Berkeley Institute and all those whose hard work make it come to fruition. “All things Flow, Nothing Stands Still” – there is always something more to learn, another story to listen to, another perspective to understand. Oral history is endlessly inspiring!